Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for October 2009

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” wrote Henry Thoreau (1817-1862), “but it may be that Maine and Texas have nothing to communicate.”

What would Thoreau have felt about our world of “instant messaging” and constant “networking”? I am bombarded by invitations- which I routinely ignore- from friends and strangers to join Facebook and similar sites. I have also been advised that I should be blogging at least once a day, not twice or (at most) thrice a month. I am not using the full potential of the medium. My standard response to such well-intentioned invitations and advice is simple: I have a life to live.

We are increasingly enmeshed in what has come to be called the “cult of interactivity”. Instant and online interaction brings pleasure and convenience to millions, including myself. I am grateful for the advances in communications technology. But when communication becomes an end in itself, when having the biggest bandwidth is more important than what we have to say to one another, then the technology and the marketing have become our masters, not our servants. A wise use of technology may well be to refuse to use its “full potential”. When it comes to Powerpoint presentations, for example, my slides are deliberately few and unsophisticated. For if the content of my lecture is not more attractive than the slides themselves, then I should not be lecturing.

Paradoxically, with the new cellular and Internet technologies linking us to one another, we can now become self-enclosed, self-sufficient, controlling centres. There are even news-gathering services on the Internet offering to download only news that is tailor-made to our individual interests and needs. Moreover, for all the advertising hype about mobile phones “bringing the world together”, we have all endured the experience of a stranger in a crowded train or restaurant uttering sheer banalities (or even obscenities) at the top of his voice into his mobile phone, blissfully insensitive to the feelings of those around him.

Therefore, we need to ask not only what we do with our technologies, but what we are becoming through our technologies. Technology alters our perceptions of ourselves, of others and of the world. There is a dialectical relationship between the tools we use, our conception of the world and our self-consciousness. As Neil Postman puts it pungently, “To the man with a hammer, everything is a nail.”

Technological change is thus ecological change. It changes the culture, altering the structure of our interests, the character of our symbols, and the things we think about and think with. It fosters certain habits of mind and discourages others.

Ponder the mobile-phone concept of communication. This has pushed aside the old-fashioned idea of “conversation” which was slow, messy and sometimes painful. The new communication is identified with “exchanging information”, and this exchange is crisp, clear and instant. You say as little as possible to make sure you get what you want as fast as you can.  To be “in 24-hour communication” has come to mean sending and receiving a tidal wave of “messages” every day. And, in the new language of the mobile world, it is the device, not the human user, that does the “communicating” via global networks.

The growth of these technologies demonstrates the human ability to manufacture powerful methods of collecting, storing and disseminating vast quantities of information. But the technologies themselves do not provide the necessary frameworks and contexts of interpretation to sift, evaluate and assess the informational deluge that inundates us.  Gossip, rumour, and half-truths are immediately transmitted as the latest facts. It is increasingly difficult in cyberspace to know who is speaking, what he or she really means by what they say, and whose self-interests are shaping the online rhetoric.

We could spend our whole lives texting, but there will always be part of us that we do not- and should not- want to share with anyone other than our family and closest friends. And we do not need to comment on every news article, answer every online questionnaire, or subscribe to every networking site. Privacy needs protecting in an age of cyber vandalism. And imposing a regular “Sabbath” rest from our feverish networking and texting is good for our spiritual health. Contemplation and solitude are the soil in which deep and authentic relationships flourish.

Present-day discussions by Western philosophers about morality in general, and human rights in particular, are haunted by the challenge that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) threw down more than a century ago. Once we abandon all reference to God, can we continue to talk about the “dignity” , “equality”, and “rights” of individual human beings – simply because they are human beings?

A right is a claim that somebody has to be treated in a certain way by others and not to be treated in certain other ways by others. To every claim-right there is a correlative duty. If X has a right against Y to Y’s doing or refraining from doing action A, then Y has a duty toward X to do or refrain from doing A.

Many of the rights we enjoy are socially generated, either by legislation or social practices. For example, if my employer promises to pay me a specific amount of money every month for the work that I do, then I have a right (a legitimate claim) against my employer if he were to break his promise. However, underlying that contractual right is also a natural right, one that is not socially conferred: for our right not to have our trust betrayed is a natural right, not a right we have on account of a human decision.

I said in my last posting (2 October) that we have come to recognize, and enshrine in various international declarations, a certain class of natural rights that are human rights. That is, rights that we possess simply by virtue of belonging to the species Homo Sapiens. These rights are inherent to the status of being human.

However, very rarely do we address the question Nietzsche posed. If human beings possess a worth that grounds the language of equality and rights, whence this worth? Worth cannot just float free; always there has to be something that gives the entity such worth as it has, some property, achievement, or relationship on which its worth supervenes.

There is a long line of Western philosophers, from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls, who have assumed- while not explicitly arguing for it- that the capacity for rational agency is what gives worth to human beings. But, as Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his fine book Justice: Rights and Wrongs, those who can exercise this capacity for rational action better than others are then of greater worth than others. Indeed, a good many human beings, such as Alzheimer’s patients and those with severe mental impairment, will never be able to exercise this capacity. Wolterstorff asks: “Must we then expect that those human beings who lack the capacities mentioned, who cannot function as persons, will be endangered? Must we expect that our treatment of them will sooner or later be determined entirely by what best serves the life-goods of the rest of us, not by their right against us to our treating them in certain ways? I think we must.” (p.390)

Nietzsche despised the weak, the poor, and the maimed. He proposed a counter-Christian “moral code for physicians”- the physician, Nietzsche urged, should encourage in himself active contempt for the invalid, regarding him as a parasite on society when he comes to a certain stage of degeneration. But most secular thinkers, while honouring Nietzsche’s brilliance, have not bitten the bullet the way that Nietzsche did.

Wolterstorff argues that being loved by God, despite our flaws and irrespective of who we are, is what ultimately gives a human being great worth. And he quotes (on p.324) the Australian philosopher, Raimond Gaita, himself a secularist, who says with unusual candour:

“The secular philosophical tradition speaks of inalienable rights, inalienable dignity and of persons as ends in themselves. These are, I believe, ways of whistling in the dark, ways of trying to make secure to reason what reason cannot finally underwrite…. We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgment these are ways of trying to say that we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it. Be that as it may: each of them is problematic and contentious. Not one of them has the simple power of the religious ways of speaking.”

Gaita adds:  “Where does that power come from? Not, I am quite sure, from esoteric theological or philosophical elaboration of what it means for something to be sacred. It derives from the unashamedly anthropomorphic character of the claim that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.”

China “celebrated” 60 years of communist rule yesterday. Since I have never visited that great country, I dare not comment on its economic achievements or its political failures. But this is what a young Chinese friend penned on the anniversary:

“Unsustainable, Undemocratic, Immoral, Corrupt, Ruthless, Polluted, Paranoid, Value-free.”

What adjectives come to mind when we think about our own nations?…..

Governments kill. That is true of governments of every ideological hue from red to blue. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of helpless, unarmed civilians who have been shot, burned alive, bombed, and tortured in the past one hundred years have been victims of either their own governments or foreign governments. The atrocities committed by anti-government insurgents, rebels, terrorists and such like, while every bit as wicked as that committed by governments, are numerically insignificant by comparison.

But that is not the impression given by local and global media who prefer to focus on the spectacular “terrorist” attacks (a focus that further fuels such “terrorist” methods) rather than the often covert, routine abductions and killings of political dissidents and critics. The fact that the media are often controlled by governments, or are owned by a handful of moguls who are hand-in-glove with the government, is another reason for the bias.

That is why political vigilance on the part of ordinary citizens like us is so important. Watch the language of politicians. “Emergency laws” and “national security” are usually cover-ups for bolstering one’s power and justifying repression. It was not too long ago that the phrase “un-American activities” was bandied about in the US without generating much debate. China still speaks of “anti-patriotic elements”, although Mao’s “capitalist lackeys” and “Western revisionists” have fallen by the wayside. “Naxalites”, “terrorists” and “terrorist supporters” are widespread in South Asia. The “Muslim threat” raises it ugly head in some European nations.

The moral history of the twentieth century is a horrific one. But it would be incomplete if we failed to include the emergence, as a response to the horrors, of a global recognition of human rights: that is rights that attach to the status of simply being human, a member of the species Homo Sapiens. The main documentary achievements in this regard were the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). The Roman Catholic philosopher Mary Ann Glendon observes, at the end of her narrative about the UN Declaration of Human Rights, “By affirming that all its rights belong to everyone, everywhere, it aimed to put an end to the idea that a nation’s treatment of its own citizens or subjects was immune from outside scrutiny.”[1]

It is that “immunity from outside scrutiny” that despots demand. Governments that have signed these declarations continue to violate them with impunity. And that is as true for liberal democracies when they perceive threats to their “national security” or “economic prosperity” as it is for dictatorships. Therein lies the chief failing of these declarations: their lack of enforceability apart from economic sanctions and, in extreme cases of genocide, military intervention.

Moreover, the declarations sit uncomfortably with a founding principle of the UN Charter- the myth of “national sovereignty”- which is invoked by evil regimes around the world to deflect all international criticism. The main problem with the UN is neither corruption nor double standards (very real though these are), but the fact that it was conceived in a world of sovereign states, a world where the overriding concern of the post-World War II settlement was the guarantee of the inviolability of national borders. But today’s world is one where wars happen typically within states. Whole populations, or minorities within populations, need assistance against their own despotic governments. Thus the UN Charter’s emphasis on the inviolability of sovereign states poses a conundrum.

The preamble to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights opens with the claim that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Article 1 goes on to affirm that “all human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and rights.” This is obviously not an empirical observation. So what is its epistemic status?

Further, what is it about each and every human being that gives him or her an inherent dignity that serves to ground human rights? That is not an easy question to answer. And every secularist attempt to answer it ends up defending only the rights of some human beings and not all human beings. More on that next time.


[1] Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001) p.235


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